Conservatives, especially Christian ones, commonly assume civilization is in a chronic irreversible spiral. But evil doesn’t advance inexorably nor does virtue always retreat. All societies everywhere combine decadence with spiritual vitality.
Here’s a provocative statement: in some ways Washington, D.C. is a more moral place than 30 years ago, from my personal observation. I think the same maybe true for other great cities.
I’ve worked off and on in the McPherson Square neighborhood since 1983, when I interned for a national security advocacy group while a college student. My office then and my office now are several blocks from the White House. Almost immediately after dark in the 1980s the neighborhood filled with garishly dressed, or undressed, street walking prostitutes. The traffic they attracted on L Street caused nightly traffic jams that the police corralled with orange traffic cones. That’s right. The police managed the crowd for prostitutes but seemingly did not impair the prostitution itself, which of course was and is illegal.
Just a few blocks away was the city’s infamous red light district, literally on and euphemistically known as “14th Street.” There were a couple blocks of dirty book stores, porn theaters, strip clubs, brothels and bath houses. The post office was in their midst, and as an intern I often lugged the office postage meter there for refilling. In mid day the vice industry was still vibrant, even as professional office workers strolled by. There was also a Popeye’s Chicken, which office workers and porn workers in egalitarian fashion patronized together.
The Paradise Model and Escort Service was across from the post office and Popeye’s, and the “models” sat scantily glad in the window, sometimes beckoning passersby. As I later read, the police were supposedly powerless because undercover officers could not comply with the house requirement that patrons completely undress. On the corner was a gay bathhouse that presumably hosted anonymous trysts. The adjoining porn shops, brightly lit, and open 24-7, marketed their smut within easy view of the street.
A block away, on 15th Street, there was a longstanding porn theater next to IRD’s early office, just a block away from the White House. During the 1960 presidential campaign, the recently deceased journalist Ben Bradlee, as he recounted in his memoir, went to another nearby porn theater with JFK and their wives on the tense night of the West Virginia primary. In the 1990s these establishments were mercifully torn down and replaced with upscale offices. “Fourteenth Street,” as the metaphor for DC vice, was virtually no more.
Except the prostitution continued for several more years. I believe the last street walker I saw was at least four or five years ago. For decades there was a mysterious establishment on L Street above a burger joint that exuded music and strobe lights all night, every night. One early evening about 10 years ago, friends and I summoned the courage to climb the stairs. An effusive bartender loudly greeted us, inviting us to sit in the “VIP lounge,” an alcove of shabby couches surrounded with old biker chick calendars. The clientele at the bar, about a dozen or so hardened regulars, seemed collectively to represent every form of fallen humanity. We quickly left. About five years ago the pulsating music and strobe lights at “Clicks” suddenly went silent and dark. A waiter next door told me the police, after months of surveillance, had shut it down as a brothel. It’s not clear why it took decades to do so. The building was gutted and rebuilt as an upscale though failed nightclub.
Open prostitution and pornography seem to have disappeared from Washington, DC after perhaps two centuries (according to legend, the term “hooker” originated here during the Civil War.) Of course, both have largely relocated to the internet, making street walking and porn theaters irrelevant. But gentrifying jurisdictions also are incentivized to shut down or chase away open vice. Once seedy Times Square in New York, cleaned up under Mayor Giuliani, also in the 1990s, is another classic example.
The easier private access to porn online of course is tragic and massively socially corrupting. But the absence of porn in prominent public space, like downtown Washington, is a partial victory. The flagrantly open display of smut, prostitution and places of assignation for anonymous sex, countenanced by law enforcement and public mores, was an embarrassment in the nation’s capital, especially when so close to centers of government.
There was of course also during this neighborhood transition the dramatic drop in crime. One colleague in the 1980s was mugged outside our office at dusk. Fortunately he was a former Marine who fought off his attackers. But such altercations were common. Now, I leave my office at late hours with few concerns. The city’s crime rates, which perhaps peaked during the 1990s crack epidemic and accompanying shooting sprees, have plunged. Hundreds who would have been killed under the old murder rates, when DC was styled the nation’s “murder capital,” are alive today. It was a turning point when Mayor Barry was arrested for crack possession at a hotel just two blocks from our current office.
In the evenings now, instead of street walkers and pan handlers, I encounter tourists and frolicking Millennials. The once burned out area of 14th Street, north of our office, destroyed by the 1968 riots, and until recent years a near no man’s land, is now a thriving restaurant district for the beautiful people.
The old decadence has receded from public view, creating a safer, more vital and appealing city. Although smut and prostitution continue out of sight, at least there is no longer the open social and even law enforcement complicity with it. This new era, repeated in other city downtowns, is at least an incremental advance for social virtue, for which gratitude is justified.